Conservatives are worried that Mitt Romney isn’t fighting hard enough, as the Obama campaign and its satellites release one lie after another, and get away with it. Liberals are worried—possibly even more–as they lament Barack Obama’s dwindling financial advantage and struggle to come to terms with the administration’s economic failures. Both sides are actually lamenting the same problem: a pervasive lack of leadership.
To be sure, some of the anxiety is normal. In early September 2008, as John McCain enjoyed a surge in the polls, Tom Friedman of the New York Times vented his frustrations:
I confess, I watch politics from afar, but here’s what I’ve been feeling for a while: Whoever slipped that Valium into Barack Obama’s coffee needs to be found and arrested by the Democrats because Obama has gone from cool to cold.
Somebody needs to tell Obama that if he wants the chance to calmly answer the phone at 3 a.m. in the White House, he is going to need to start slamming down some phones at 3 p.m. along the campaign trail. I like much of what he has to say, especially about energy, but I don’t think people are feeling it in their guts, and I am a big believer that voters don’t listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs.
Indeed they do–and what voters want most in uncertain times is leadership. The 2008 election is proof that voters are less concerned about where a candidate wants to lead them than the fact that he is convinced there is somewhere to go. John McCain made it through the primary because of, not despite, his persistent support for an unpopular war. He lost in November because he could not stick to a clear position on the economy.
Facing tough re-election odds, President Obama is no longer running as a centrist, but as the leftist he has always been. And yet he is still doing surprisingly well among the small number of independent voters who will decide the election. That is because the Democrats understand the true nature of the independent vote, whereas Republicans believe the myth that “independent” voters are “moderates” between the two parties.
There are basically two groups of independent voters. One consists of principled voters who dislike the corrupt nature of partisan politics. Most of the voters in this group are conservative, and are less integrated into the Republican Party than left-wing voters are integrated into today’s Democratic Party. The other group consists of voters who are not concerned about either politics or ideology, though they might have idiosyncratic beliefs.
These two groups of independent voters have little in common except one thing: they admire strength and leadership; they prefer winners to losers. Democrats appreciate that–which is why left-wing hacks such as ex-convict Robert Creamer are worth reading when they publish talking points on the Huffington Post or elsewhere. Nothing they say is true, but all of it is calculated to create an impression that they are winning.
Obama is appealing to his base not just by taking more extreme positions (such as his sudden support for gay marriage) but by projecting the absolute conviction that he is right–no matter how empty his policies, no matter how false his accusations against his opponent. Romney cannot respond easily–largely because the media holds a double standard, but also because reacting to Obama projects weakness instead of strength.
So Romney needs to show a different kind of confidence–the confidence of principled, conservative conviction. He missed an opportunity during the Chick-fil-A debacle, when he could have defended freedom of speech and religion. He missed another chance in the outsourcing debate, when he accepted the false premise that overseas investment hurts American workers, rather than defending our ability to compete in the free market.
Today, he is letting Obama and the media challenge him (again) on his past tax returns, without confronting the president aggressively about his cover-up of documents relating to the Fast and Furious scandal. While the media debates the farcical claim that Romney is responsible for the cancer death of the wife of a laid-off worker, the Romney campaign is failing to point out the very real health care consequences of Obamacare. (It has an ad that points out Obama’s dishonesty–but that is still defense, not attack.)
On Super Tuesday in 2008, my wife and I were the only conservatives at a party hosted by Harvard professors–all Democrats, divided between the Obama and Clinton camps. They asked us which candidate we feared most in the general election. My wife said Hillary, due to her superior policies, experience, and debate prowess; I said Obama, because his persona and movement-style campaign transcended policy fights.
Today, certainly, Romney cannot run on economic policy alone, even–especially?–in difficult economic times. He must project strength and leadership–not the cult-of-personality mode that Obama prefers, but a simple willingness to fight for conservative principles, which independent voters will appreciate and support, whether they agree or not.